The Giallo Project – Sergio Martino Pt. 2

All The Colors Of The Dark (Tutti I Colori Del Buio) (Italy, 1972), is, I think, more of what Americans think of when they think of 70s European giallo movies – dream sequences, a terrified woman, a stalker in a trenchcoat, a knife, a spurt of blood, suspects who don’t seem like suspects (which means they’re all suspects), and a psychedelic satanic orgy or two thrown in for good measure. Here, in their third collaboration, Martino and Ernesto Gastaldi (and co-writer Sauro Scavolini) have fashioned a good old-fashioned Saturday-night horror-thriller, ripe with paranoia and lurid sex-and-violence set-pieces. But the story is not nearly as crisp, nor the psychology nearly as foundational, as those elements were in his previous two films (discussed in Part I here).



After a pretty tame title credit roll (a quiet lagoon in the country somewhere surrounded by trees, slowly moving from dusk to nighttime), the film itself opens with a pretty off-putting dream sequence involving pregnant women (one beautiful, one not-so-much), an old man in drag as a child’s doll in a frilly white dress (very Baby Jane), and a mysterious sinister blue-eyed man with a knife. Even if we eventually figure out the meanings of these tableaux, the ill-conceived sequence itself is rarely referred to again, save for that sinister blue-eyed guy with the knife. (It looks like an outtake from an old Avengers episode.) We simply need to take Jane Harrison’s (Edwige Fenech) word and manner at face value concerning these nightmares she’s having – they are reoccurring, and they are draining her emotionally. They draw on a few events in Jane’s recent life – the mysterious murder of her mother some years ago, and a serious auto accident that Richard , her longtime boyfriend (George Hilton), got them into that cost them the child they were expecting at the time. Richard feels that Jane just needs time, their love, his support and a healthy dose of vitamins (he’s a pharmaceuticals salesman) to get past it all. Jane’s sister, Barbara, is the receptionist for a very successful psychiatrist, Dr. Burton, and insists that she let him help her. (Susan Scott, known in earlier films by her real name, Nieves Navarro, plays Barbara, and she’ll appear frequently in later gialli directed by her husband, Luciano Ercoli.) The kindly but serious-minded Dr. Burton (George Rigaud) is, indeed, helpful, and Jane plans to return for regular sessions. But Jane also meets an intriguing new neighbor, the elegantly discreet Mary (Marina Malfatti, another giallo semi-regular), whose attendance at Black Masses in an elaborate castle on the outskirts of town have rid her of a lot of her own personal demons. Hey, Jane, c’mon along! And, of course, she does.

Mary (Marina Malfatti) in 'All The Colors Of The Dark.'  credit:

Mary (Marina Malfatti) in ‘All The Colors Of The Dark.’ credit:

In previous films, Gastaldi would have taken the time necessary to justify a lot of Jane’s decisions based on her own character’s history (this was well-orchestrated in The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.). He sets up an interesting crosscurrent or two – Richard and Barbara clearly loathe each other; protective big sister vs. boyfriend she doesn’t have much use for. Jane doesn’t trust Richard to take her nightmares seriously, but her own stabs at resolution seem both passive and flailing, almost purely fear-driven, helped along by frequent reappearances of the sinister blue-eyed guy (Ivan Rassimov, playing the looming–evil-shadow-guy yet again; the film to see Rassimov excel in is Massimo Dallamano’s Mafia Junction, also released as Superbitch, also released as Blue Movie Blackmail [*sigh*] a superior police thriller, or, as the Italians say, poliziotteschi). We had a pretty good sense of Julie Wardh’s present life, and the decisions that created it, in that previous film, but there are very open questions here of how Jane Harrison ended up with Richard to begin with, what her own real relationship is to her sister, and why she has no problem with drinking dead dog’s blood and essentially being gang-raped at a co-ed Black Mass in a castle basement. Wai…wha… Huh?! Well, yeah – it’s mercifully softcore (although the dog thing’s a little disturbing), but that’s clearly what occurs. Nonetheless, its tonic properties are apparent where Richard and Jane are concerned – having had previous trouble with ‘The Tune,’ they rediscover the ‘Sheet Music’ again after Jane’s little pagan-orgy adventure.

Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech) in 'All The Colors Of The Dark.'  credit:

Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech) in ‘All The Colors Of The Dark.’ credit:

A few days later, Jane again joins Mary for another visit to the bacchanal-in-the-basement, but gets a nasty surprise – Mary has brought Jane to the group to replace her, which enables Mary to fulfill her wish to shuffle off of this mortal coil, which requires Jane to be the one to send her off. And in her hand is That Knife from the nightmares…

Eventually we learn that a lot of these weird things have deeper, and more practical, histories than Jane is aware of – Mom’s murder featuring prominently – but a lot of other stuff just stays weird, and oddly unmotivated. Sinister blue-eyed guy turns out to be one of the Black Mass-ers; it might’ve made more sense for him to help lure her there than to terrorize her, and at one point even try to kill her, for the first half of the film. Jane’s fear is what makes it easy for Mary to ingratiate herself, so, oddly, his mission is somewhat accomplished, but his role overall is pretty murky. We also learn a thing or two about Barbara that throws a bunch of her character’s logic out the window as well. And if the script didn’t designate some degree of importance to Richard’s character, we wouldn’t have much idea of what he’s doing there at all. Fenech does her usual reliable good work here – her performance is a big element of the pervasive tone of paranoia and suspense, and it’s harder than one might think to be The Girl Who’s Scared All Of The Time without boring hell out of us after twenty minutes. As big dumb scary-fun B-grade sexy-sexy entertainment, All The Colors Of The Dark is very good, and is much better than a lot of the seventies product we’ll be faced with later on. But based on Martino and Gastaldi’s previous high standards, it’s one of the lesser of the big five.

Barbara (Susan Scott) in 'All The Colors Of The Dark.'  credit:

Barbara (Susan Scott) in ‘All The Colors Of The Dark.’ credit:


Martino’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (Il Tuo Vizio É Una Stanza Chiusa E Solo Io Ne Ho La Chiave) (Italy, 1972) isn’t nearly as concerned with the volume of the body count as it is the psychological intrigues that lead to murders in the first place. Martino stretches the form even more; the grisly deaths are directly tied in to the psychology and motives of the players, and there are superb twists at the end, including a tip of the hat to our old pal Edgar Allen Poe.

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) and Irene (Anita Strindberg) in 'Your Vice Is A Locked Room...'  credit:

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) and Irene (Anita Strindberg) in ‘Your Vice Is A Locked Room…’ credit:

Martino, Gastaldi, Sauro Scavolini and Adriano Bolzoni subvert a number of thriller clichés here. Oliviero Ruvigny (Luigi Pistilli) had some early success as a novelist, then went into teaching, and now simply languishes on his rural estate, drunk, high and sweaty, living off of the inheritance left to him by his mother, a famous Italian film actress. He graciously (if sloppily) holds court with the nearby commune hippies who drink his booze, eat his food and regale him with nude dancing and earnest but annoying protest songs. He’s cringe-inducingly cruel to his beautiful wife Irene (Anita Strindberg, doing some A-level scenery chewing here), and regularly sleeps around with the local girls. So the big question, of course, is how can Irene stand it? But just when you think we’re trapped in a tedious Antonioni knock-off, the small village is struck with a nasty slasher killing involving a young girl Oliviero may have been involved with; Irene immediately suspects Oliviero, which, of course, enrages him. But when their young and beautiful housekeeper, Brenda (Angela La Vorgna) suffers the same bloody fate in their own upstairs hallway, Irene helps him to dispose of the body! Is she an irretrievable Stockholm-er, or are their darker intrigues afoot? Ratcheting up the thickening plot, Oliviero’s young niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech, with a short, stylish bob haircut) settles in for a surprise visit. She sizes things up pretty quickly and goes to her own kind of work, comforting the tormented Irene, derisively but promiscuously belittling the sodden Oliviero, and striking out on her own to bed a local or two herself. It’s a refreshing change for Fenech, portraying one of the villains rather than a potential victim. Floriana’s the id – the unattached pleasure-seeker – to Irene’s ego – sacrificing herself to the goal of a later-imagined payoff of some sort, although it ain’t about money – Oliviero, it’s mentioned, is already starting to sell off furniture to raise cash.

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) can't resist his young niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech) in 'Your Vice Is A Locked Room...'  credit:

Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) can’t resist his young niece, Floriana (Edwige Fenech) in ‘Your Vice Is A Locked Room…’ credit:

Martino and his fellow writers smear their Oedipal, incestuous, misogynistic, voyeuristic and sado-masochistic conceits across the film with a trowel. Oliviero keeps his mother’s black cat, named Satan, as his pet, while Irene keeps a small dove-cote, which is predictably raided by you-know-who. Both Irene and Floriana treat Oliviero’s sexual congress with his late mother as a foregone conclusion, which just seems to motivate the opportunistic Floriana as much as disturb her. And the first three murder victims – one of Oliviero’s former-student side projects, Brenda the housekeeper and a newly-arrived local prostitute – are clearly being punished for their forthright sexuality.

Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key is an impressive showcase for the best, and the worst, of the Italian giallo. Its plot structure is admirably and compellingly twisty-turny, the lead performances are very good, and it’s genuinely scary and thrilling. The psychological gamesmanship of the three leads is the real engine of the plot, rather than just violence and sex. But some, understandably, will be put off by the persistent misogyny – Oliviero, in his way, gets off easy, while the women in the film Get Theirs in more disturbing ways, even in the later cases where a kind of justice is being served. We’re starting to move away from Argento’s sparingly-used POV techniques to heighten our empathy for the potential victim, and towards directors’ using similar techniques to build unhealthy anticipation for the inevitable kill.

Floriana (Edwige Fenech) has some hairstyling tips for Irene (Anita Strindberg) in 'Your Vice Is A Locked Room...'

Floriana (Edwige Fenech) has some hairstyling tips for Irene (Anita Strindberg) in ‘Your Vice Is A Locked Room…’

I enjoyed the film overall, despite these caveats. Giancarlo Ferrando’s cinematography here is quite wonderful, although Bruno Nicolai’s (usually eccentric) musical score leans a little muzak-y. Of course, the film is lousy with alternative titles provided by wildly grasping distributors – Gently Before She Dies, Eye of the Black Cat and, my favorite, Excite Me (!). But posterity has left us with the best title, which is nicked from one of the notes Julie Wardh receives with her flowers from the insidious Jean in our first film. I would put consensus down that Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key and The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh, my own favorites, are generally tied for second in the estimation of Martino’s giallo fans. And the popular pick for #1…?


Carla Brait, Angela Covello, Tina Aumont, Suzi Kendall and Cristina Airoldi in 'Torso.'  credit:

Carla Brait, Angela Covello, Tina Aumont, Suzi Kendall and Cristina Airoldi in ‘Torso.’ credit:

As Mario Bava’s Bay Of Blood spawned the Friday the 13th series, and its countless offshoots, Martino’s Torso (I Corpi Presentano Tracce Di Violenza Carnale, which translates as The Bodies Show Signs Of Carnal Violence – me, I’m OK with the long titles…) (Italy, 1973) was the template for seemingly hundreds of Co-Eds In Peril movies. Up until now, the Martino / Gastaldi films featured adults contending with the psychologically distorted remnants of their youthful past, or adults contending with the practical dangers of deranging greed, following the Bava / Argento model. This was one of the first films to feature victims – a series of young girls – who are essentially punished for their potential to end up socially and / or sexually well-adjusted, and our killer, wrapped in customary black and wielding customary cutting instruments, takes extreme measures to prevent that from happening and/or punish them for their prerogatives. (Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon touched on this somewhat, but not with Martino / Gastaldi’s obvious fervor.)

Jane, Dani, Flo, Carol. Katia and Ursula (respectively, Suzi Kendall, Tina Aumont, Patrizia Adiutori, Cristina Airoldi, Angela Covello and Carla Brait) are all great friends at their fine arts school in Perugia. Jane is an American who has taught art history before (she’s older than the others) and is pursuing further study in Italy, and Dani lives with her Uncle while she’s in school. They love their classes, and, in an early scene, debate the qualities of the paintings of Perugino with their handsome art professor, Franz (John Richardson) (‘Perugino’ was the painter Pietro Vannucci’s nickname, as he was raised in that region of Umbria). Being a little older, Jane hits it off with Professore Franz, but he’s good about being a gentleman about it. The other girls contend with a little more drama in their lives: Dani is being pursued, annoyingly to her, by Stefano (Roberto Bisacco), whose preppy smugness hides some pretty severe masculine insecurities. Katia and Ursula are just fine – they’re a happy intimate couple. Carol, however, has less discerning luck with men – we learn that she’s carrying on an affair with Dani’s uncle, and she’s fallen in with a few surly pot-smoking locals who take more license with her than propriety might allow. Flo is smart and attractive, and, that night, hooks up with fellow student Sean for a little parking pillow talk under a freeway underpass. Distressingly, Flo and Sean then become the first murder victims of the perpetrator who subsequently pursues them all. Carol’s death follows soon after, as she abandons two of her male party pals at an out-of-the-way pot-fest, and walks through the woods back to civilization in a soporific haze – easy pickings to become the second victim.

Dani (Tina Aumont) in 'Torso.'  credit:

Dani (Tina Aumont) in ‘Torso.’ credit:

The police conspicuously alert the school’s student body that the three victims came from among their ranks, and urge them to help find the killer. The main clue is fabric remnants of a particular red-and-black scarf found under the fingernails of both female victims. Dani recalls that scarf, and wracks her brain to remember whom she saw wearing it. Dani’s uncle is leaving the city for Paris on a business trip, and suggests that Dani and all of her friends repair to his rural country villa to escape the oppressive fear that the Perugia murders have fostered. Dani, Carol and Katia take the train out to the country – Jane will drive out to join them later after taking care of some unavoidable business.

Jane (Suzi Kendall) in 'Torso.'  credit:

Jane (Suzi Kendall) in ‘Torso.’ credit:

So, as with most conventional murder thrillers, we have the black-gloved assassino, a short but involving list of potential victims, and a wide assortment of possible perpetrators – the wheedling Stefano in pursuit of Dani’s favors, the Uncle with something to hide, the surly stoners who took advantage of Carol, a guy we catch glimpses of in Perugia who turns out to be a doctor in the small rural village to which they’ve taken refuge (Luc Merenda) – hell, let’s throw in the art professor as well, though it seems more notable that Jane herself doesn’t seem nearly as upset by the murders as her friends are. What exactly is that business she needed to attend to before joining them? Which of these suspects would be an acquaintance of the street vendor who sells the scarves, and whom meets a grisly fate of his own?

'Torso.'  credit:

‘Torso.’ credit:

I won’t spoil the details of what happens at the villa, other than to say that the killer, naturally, follows them there, that extraordinarily nasty things happen (pushing the envelope of ‘nasty things that typically happen in gialli’), that one of the girls falls and twists her ankle, and that the final half-hour of the film is one of the most artfully constructed sequences of squirm-inducing suspense since mid-sixties Hitchcock. The good parts are great parts, but, like Your Vice…, I have mixed feelings about the misogynistic bent of the film, despite the artistry of the presentation. I just think the women in Your Vice… are a more even match for what they’re up against.

One other note – the opening credits sequence of Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key is a gauzy depiction of a lovemaking couple (seemingly Irene and Oliviero) that doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with the events of the film thereafter. However, the opening credit sequence of Torso, another filtered and abstracted mélange of intimately intertwined flesh, turns out to be crucial to the later events of this film. I’ll leave it to you to discover why that’s true.

'Torso.'  credit:

‘Torso.’ credit:

Sergio Martino’s giallo films are all excellent murder-melodramas that seamlessly blend the stylistic breakthroughs of later Hitchcock, Mario Bava and Dario Argento without sacrificing Martino’s own strong directorial personality. To sum up: The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh and Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key are my personal favorites, and The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail, while less sensationalized, is very underrated. Torso was more problematic for me, but is undoubtedly a must-see for the giallo genre in general. And All The Colors Of The Dark, while not holding together as well as the others, still contains some jaw-dropping sequences that would delight any late-Saturday-night viewers, and would be an ideal drive-in movie if there were still drive-ins. And it’s well worth seeking out both Edwige Fenech and Anita Strindberg’s other work – they were all over the Italian B-movie industry in the 1970s, and we’re sure to encounter them later on.


The Giallo Project – Sergio Martino Pt. 1

As we’ve discussed so far, Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the real trailblazers of the giallo film genre in 1960s and 70s Italian film. One might compare them to mystery writers rather than filmmakers. Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the best-known original progenitors of the mystery / detective novel? – they’re comparable to the German expressionists like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, and their youthful young British contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock, using stylization unique to their respective media to introduce a new psychological complexity in the service of narratives previously considered too common or unpleasant for general cultural consumption. In the west, the writers who galvanized this genre were Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. On a parallel, I would characterize Bava and Argento as I would these writers – filmmakers who took the best ideas of the earlier work – the expressionists, Hitchcock and the German krimi mysteries – and synthesized it into an individually unique, but eminently reproducible, style. (We generally use the term genre, but the Italians also describe this idea as filone, which pays homage to the previous ideas and concepts that the present form derives from.) Having done a little perusal of Argento, Bava, and the early sixties giallo experimenters, we now start to wade through the many filmmakers whom exploited their breakthroughs to produce a far more financially opportunistic body of product. Rest assured, though, that many of these filmmakers, drawing from templates that weren’t necessarily their own, still produced admirable and singularly creative work. These are the James M. Cains, the John D. McDonalds, the Mickey Spillanes, the Robert B. Parkers, the Elmore Leonards and the James Ellroys of the genre (add your own post-pioneer mystery / crime author here). And, through the luck of the draw, we’re going to start with Sergio Martino.

Edwige Fenech in 'The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.'  credit:

Edwige Fenech in ‘The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.’ credit:

Martino, like Argento and Bava, carried on a family tradition. His grandfather was Gennaro Righelli, an Italian director who made over a hundred films from 1910 to 1947, and Sergio began his career as an assistant to his film writer / producer older brother Luciano. He moved through the ranks, assisting Mario Bava on The Whip And The Body before his first true directing efforts, the mondo-style documentaries Wages Of Sin, Naked And Violent and One Day In America (America Un Giorno) and the spaghetti western Arizona Colt Returns. That The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh (Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh, also released in the west as Blade Of The Ripper) (Italy, 1971) was only his second fictional narrative film is pretty impressive – it’s excellent. He had the services of screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, a seasoned veteran who had written the previous year’s giallo Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion for Luciano Ercoli (and we’ll get to him later on…), as well as a couple of Carroll Baker’s more worthwhile Italian efforts (The Sweet Body Of Deborah, So Sweet… So Perverse), and stayed on to write all five of Martino’s gialli. He also had a pair of skilled cinematographers – the Spanish veteran Emilio Foriscot and his mondo documentary collaborator Floriano Trenker – and a terrific soundtrack composer in Nora Orlandi (bits of her music here were later used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill).

Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech) terrorized (or is she?) by Jean (Ivan Rassimov) in 'The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.'  credit:

Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech) terrorized (or is she?) by Jean (Ivan Rassimov) in ‘The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.’ credit:

Martino wastes no time in making a nasty splash – a prostitute is killed by a mysterious unseen razor-wielding killer in the first two minutes of the film, immediately followed by a text legend quoting Sigmund Freud concerning violence and murder being part of human nature. We then meet Julie Wardh (the always reliably smart and sexy Edwige Fenech, an almond-eyed French-Algerian renowned in Europe for these gialli, as well as a subsequent series of 70s Italian sex comedies) and her husband, Neil (Alberto de Mendoza), returning to Italy fresh off of a plane from New York. Neil, an important international financier, is immediately met at the terminal by two associates, and is whisked away to another late-night meeting, leaving Julie to cab home on her own. The cab stops at a police checkpoint – they’re dealing with the murder we saw earlier, one of an apparent series of female slashings. This evokes a flashback memory for Julie of a steamy and submissive encounter she had with an ex-lover, Jean (Ivan Rassimov, another frequent Martino repertory actor). We later learn that Julie married Neil to help her break away from Jean, a sexual psychological sadist that tapped in to Julie’s own darker hungers, despite her better nature. Julie fears that Jean may be the slasher-killer, even as he continues to stalk her with flower deliveries bearing darkly suggestive mash notes.

Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) confronts Jean (Ivan Rassimov) in 'The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.'  credit:

Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) confronts Jean (Ivan Rassimov) in ‘The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.’ credit:

We’re not even ten minutes into the film, and we’ve already had a murder, a sexy rain-driven flashback, and a prime murder suspect, not to mention that the sporting Edwige has already been nude twice. You can’t say that Martino doesn’t know his audience, but, despite the evidence on display, neither Martino nor Gastaldi will allow things to become outrightly silly. Unlike Bava or Argento, consistent narrative sense is a hallmark of Martino’s gialli – he favors the well-executed mystery over the style he’s using to film it – even when the tied-up loose-ends at the end of the films sometimes strain credulity. All of this stuff lays valuable groundwork for the complexities of the film’s overall story.

Julie’s best friend is Carroll (Cristina Airoldi), an adventurous and bawdy socialite. At a party she’s throwing where models are having their paper clothes ripped off (very Blow-Up), Carroll introduces Julie to her cousin George (George Hilton – we’ll discuss him in a bit); he’s in town from Australia to celebrate an inheritance that he and Carroll are the beneficiaries of. Carroll, no fan of Neil’s serious-minded stuffed-shirt business distractions, encourages George to woo her “widowed” friend, and Julie, doth protesting too much, succumbs nonetheless. Julie’s fears, however, are only increased when one of the paper-clothes models from the party becomes the slasher’s next victim. Julie receives a phone call attempting to blackmail her – give me money or I’ll tell your husband about your new affair with George, and your previous kinky proclivities with Jean. Carroll, derisively, thinks it’s Jean, and offers to meet the “blackmailer” herself, expose him as a fraud, and finally convince him to leave Julie alone. Guess who the slasher’s next victim is…

With Julie haunted by her past, neglected as a wife, swept up in a risky affair, and blaming herself for Carroll’s death, she now seems to be the slasher’s next inevitable target. The film takes a number of elaborate and atmospheric twists and turns before things come to a pretty unpredictable Agatha Christie-like conclusion.

Edwige Fenech in 'The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.'  credit:

Edwige Fenech in ‘The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.’ credit:

The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh is a well-oiled machine of contagious anxiety and mildly transgressive indulgence. Even without the ploppy Sweeney Todd sprays of squirting blood or the unmotivated displays of bare breasts, it would still hold up well as melodramatic thriller. Entire scenes exist only to ratchet up the suspense, but the narrative is structured well enough that those episodes don’t feel superfluous. Much of the credit for this goes to screenwriter Gastaldi, and Martino has enough solid professionalism to present the specifics as luridly as possible (for the early seventies, anyway…) without letting the excesses dilute the credibility of the story and performances around them. It’s one of my favorite gialli, but we’ve only just begun with Martino.

The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail (La Coda Dello Scorpione) (Italy, 1971) is a more straightforward procedural mystery than psychological thriller, but it’s still a very satisfying entertainment, crisply done and ingeniously structured.

The film follows Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart, aka Ida Galli, whom we’ve already met in The Sweet Body Of Deborah, and was another capable gialli trooper throughout the seventies); her older, but fabulously wealthy, industrialist husband has just left their home in London, bound for Tokyo, and Lisa will be hooking up with a young lover, as usual. But the phone rings late in the night, and Lisa is told that her husband’s plane has crashed, and there are no survivors. Our sudden widow then learns that the husband, Kurt, has left her a one-million dollar insurance benefit, redeemable in Athens, where her husband’s corporation is headquartered. Upon leaving her lawyer’s office, she makes a mysterious phone call, and is then accosted by another former lover, Philip, who claims to possess a letter, written by her, revealing her inclinations to be rid of her husband. Lisa is willing to pay the blackmail to the drug-addled Philip in return for securing the letter, but when she arrives at his apartment that night, he’s been murdered, and the letter has been absconded with. Undaunted, she continues on to Athens, where she meets two important people. Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) is Kurt’s Greek lover who believes that Kurt was leaving Lucy for her, and that Kurt intended to change the terms of his life insurance policy to make her the sole beneficiary. She accuses Lisa of conspiring in Kurt’s death to prevent this, and wants a sizable cut of her million – otherwise, she’ll raise a scandalous legal storm with the assistance of her thug-like, knife-wielding lawyer, Sharif (Luis Barboo), who seems far more interested in “settling” with Lisa out of court, if ya know what I mean… The other person is Peter Lynch (the ubiquitous but dubiously-talented spaghetti-everything actor George Hilton – westerns, policiers, gialli, he was everywhere in the 70s and 80s), the handsome and resourceful jet-set insurance investigator for Intercontinental Insurance Ltd., the holder of Kurt’s plot-thickening policy. Lisa is cashing out the policy, and has hurriedly booked her own transport to Tokyo upon getting her hands on the cash. But while waiting in her hotel room for the cab that will take her to the airport…

Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) early in 'The Case Of The Scorpion's Tale.'   credit:

Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) early in ‘The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale.’ credit:

This is the first half-hour of the film, but all of that praise with which I shower screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi is exemplified in these sequences. Enormous amounts of information are strung together across a daunting roster of characters and events (I didn’t even mention the police inspector [Luigi Pistilli], or the Interpol agent assisting him [Alberto de Mendoza]), but it’s all crystal clear and self-propelling, even in the face of a few red-herrings (at this point, you’d be disappointed if there weren’t at least a few of those). Ultimately, it’s Gastaldi’s homage to Hitchcock, and Psycho (and, by extension, to Joseph Stefano and Robert Bloch). We seem to be watching a film about Lisa Baumer, and the elaborate murder she’s committed, or the elaborate con she’s executing, or the irretrievably hopeless mess she’s found herself in. And suddenly, as with Janet Leigh’s murder, the entire bottom drops out of the story, and the narrative takes a screeching turn into an entirely different kind of mystery. Throughout the first part of the film, Martino shoots the story pretty conventionally – his only stylistic indulgence is afforded to his costumer, Luciana Marinucci, who starts Lisa off with elegant, modest dresses and pant suits that feature long vests and blazers, and progressively peels the proverbial onion with sleeker, shorter, squarer, more revealing, more vulnerable garments as Lisa’s predicaments unfold. In her final hotel room scene, she’s in a sleeveless, midriff-revealing lace silk blouse and simple slacks, her scrupulously coiffed hair down and loose. As the second “act” begins, now we suddenly get the cat-suited, black-gloved killer, now we get the visual indulgences of slow-motion, crazy hand-held camera angles and expressionistic lighting effects, now we get the escalating body count.

Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) later in 'The Case Of The Scorpion's Tail.'  credit:

Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) later in ‘The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail.’ credit:

Peter and his newfound friend, the journalist Cleo Dupont (the fetching Anita Strindberg) start to peel away from the main story – Peter’s still a routine suspect in the nastiness, but he’s happy to stay with Cleo and not go anywhere while investigations continue. But then Peter’s hotel room is ransacked by someone who thinks he might have the million dollars, and Cleo is viciously attacked while alone in her apartment, only saved by the timely return of Peter. The police inspector suggests they leave town on a cruise on the Mediterranean – meanwhile, the police will make it clear that they’re combing the city for Peter the Prime Suspect, in the hopes that the real killer will make an overconfident mistake and reveal himself. But as Peter and Cleo embark for parts unknown, and some peace and quiet, the murderer sails right along with them…

Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) meets a grisly fate in 'The Case Of The Scorpion's Tale.'  credit:

Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) meets a grisly fate in ‘The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale.’ credit:

For all of Gastaldi’s narrative structural smarts, unfortunately, the entire plot seems oddly decentralized. The majority of the movie moves along with Peter’s insurance investigation, but George Hilton, while certainly up to the mechanics and genuine work of carrying the film, just doesn’t generate enough charisma. He’s like one of those guys you always saw at other people’s parties; his presence is familiar, and amiably reassuring, but you’re never sure of whom he knows, you’re never sure of how he got here. And I don’t think that’s just how his characters are written; he brings the same odd tone of pseudo-sincere schmoozer anonymity to everything he does.

Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) seems at a disadvantage in 'The Case OfThe Scorpion's Tail.'  credit:

Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) seems at a disadvantage in ‘The Case OfThe Scorpion’s Tail.’ credit:

The most appealing character here is Anita Strindberg’s Cleo Dupont – Strindberg is an attractive and forthright performer with perfect Scandinavian cheekbones and a boob job we all hoped would have settled in a little bit better. She fully owns her character here, though – I wish she’d entered the story earlier – and was prolific as a B-movie actress in 1970s Italy. IMDB notes that her film career ended when she “married an American millionaire and settled down in Los Angeles.” Nice work if you can get it, Anita…